Disagreement in the Gospels? Differences in Matthew, Mark, and Luke's Account of the Empty Tomb
Examining the discrepancies in the synoptic gospels concerning the women, the angels, and the empty tomb
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! –Paschal Troparion
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is recorded in each of Gospels. Although the accounts convey the same central message – that Christ is risen from the dead – there are several seemingly intractable discrepancies, such as the number of women at the empty tomb, the time of their visit, the location of the stone, the number of angels, and how the women react. Because these variances have occasionally been wielded in an attempt to discredit the resurrection narrative as a whole, we are going to examine each of the accounts in the synoptics and provide commentary on why they differ.
Matthew’s Account: (Matthew 28:1–9)
Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.
But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”
So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
Mark’s Account: (Mark 16:1–8)
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Luke’s Account: (Luke 24:1–12)
Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ”
And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.
Before diving in, we must distinguish between six different women in the New Testament that go by the name Mary (four of whom were among the myrrh bearers).
Six Different Women Named Mary
Mary (the Theotokos), the betrothed of Joseph of Nazareth (Luke 1:27), of whom was born Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:25).
Virgin who gave birth to Jesus Christ, her only son (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7; See The Perpetual Virginity of Mary).
Betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth (Luke 1:27)
One of the myrrh bearing women
Stepmother of James, Joseph, Simon, Judas also known as Jude (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19), who were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage (Protoevangelium of James, 8).
James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) or “James the Just” is number as one of the 70 Apostles, presided over the counsel of Jerusalem (Acts 15), and is said to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem and to have written the the New Testament epistle under the same name. Although Orthodox Tradition tends to separate James the brother of the Lord from James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2–3; Luke 6:15), also called James the lesser to distinguish him from James the son of Zebedee (Mark 3:17), who was one of the 12 Apostles, one could make a case that they are the same person – given that the word for brother (Gr. ἀδελφός, adelphos) can mean brother, cousin, or even nephew (Genesis 14:12) and Clopas (another variant of the Aramaic would be Cleopas, Cleophas, or Alpheus), the brother of Joseph of Nazareth, had a son named James and Joseph as well. To make it even more confusing, Clopas’ wife was also named Mary.
One of the myrrh bearing women
Healed of seven demons and follower of Jesus (Luke 8:2)
Mentioned in all the synoptic accounts of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10).
Mary of Bethany:
Sister of Lazarus and Martha
One of the myrrh bearing women
Mary the wife of Clopas: Clopas was also called Alphaeus (Luke 6:15) and is said to be the brother of Joseph of Nazareth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4).
One of the myrrh bearing women
Said to be the mother of James the younger (or James the less) and Joseph (Joses),
Present at the crucifixion (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25)
Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12):
Mother of John Mark, also known as Mark the Evangelist, writer of the Gospel of Mark.
Church meeting was held at her house (Acts 12:12).
Mary of Rome:
Only mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:6 as having “labored much” among the Roman Christians.
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Examination and Commentary:
First, it's important to remember that a partial report is not a false report. Just because each gospel author doesn't report every detail of a story doesn't mean it's inaccurate. All historians edit their accounts for various purposes and the gospel writers are no different.1
Who was there?
While all of the Gospel accounts agree that Mary Magdalene was on the scene, and Mark and Luke agree on Mary the Mother of James, Mark adds Salome (Mark 16:1) – the mother of the “sons of thunder,” Apostles James and John sons of Zebedee (Mark 3:17) – and Luke adds Joanna (Luke 24:10). Additionally, Luke mentions that “other women with them told these things unto the Apostles” (Ibid). In all, Matthew records two women at the tomb, Mark records three, and Luke records five (and John 20 records 1).
The central figure in each of these narratives is Mary Magdalene. The identity of “the other Mary” in Matthew’s accounts seems to be the subject of a patristic disagreement. Saints Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395 A.D.), Jerome (c. 342–420 A.D.), John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 A.D.), Gregory Palamas (1359–1368 A.D.) et. al. believed that the other Mary referred to the Theotokos – calling her also the (step)mother of James and Joseph, the sons of Joseph of Nazareth. They also identify her (the Theotokos) as Mary the mother of James in Mark and Luke's narrative – and the one who saw where Christ was buried (see Mark 15:47).2 A separate tradition, seen first in fragment discovered in 2015 attributed to Papias of Hierapolis (c. 60–130 A.D.),3 equates this “other mary” with Mary Clopas' wife; proponents of this view, like 17th century Roman Catholic exegete Cornelius a Lapide, would determine that Clopas' wife is the mother of James spoken of in Mark and Luke.4
The received tradition in the Orthodox Church is that the other Mary and Mary the Mother of James refers to the Theotokos.5
What day was it?
According to Matthew, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” came to the tomb “after the Sabbath [Gr. Ὀψὲ δὲ σαββάτων] as the first day of the week began to dawn” (Matthew 28:1). Some translations render the Greek “late on the Sabbath” (ASV, DARBY) or alternatively “in the evening on the Sabbath,” which seems to correspond to section LII, 45 of Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. 160–180 A.D.). Mark comments that this took place “when the sabbath had past” (Mark 16:1) and Luke writes that it was on the “first day of the week” (Luke 24:1).
In his commentary on Matthew, Blessed Theophylact (c. 1050–1108 A.D.) references each account’s placement of the event then calls them variants of “the same thing.”6 The first day of the week, also called the first day of the Sabbath (that is, the first day after the Sabbath) is the same as “after the Sabbath,” and “early in the morning” because “‘sabbath’ is the name they gave also to the seven days of the week when considered together, so Sunday, the Lord’s day, is ‘the first day of the sabbath.’”7
What time was it?
Blessed Theophylact clarifies elsewhere that while each Gospel writer refers to the same day of the week, they differ on time of day. For his part, Saint Dionysius the Great (c. 200–265 A.D.) reckons that the Gospel accounts may very well refer to different times of different visitations (The Epistle to Bishop Basilides, Canon I). Commenting on Matthew 28:1, Saint Jerome writes:
The fact that different times for these women are described in the Gospels is not a sign of falsehood, as the impious object. Rather, [it shows] the duties of diligent visitation. For they were going away and returning frequently and they could not endure to be absent from the Lord’s tomb even for a short while.
–St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 28.1, p. 324.
Parsing the time of day from the day of the week provides important context for the various narratives. According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s reckoning, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb four times (Or. 2 on the Resurrection); Blessed Theophylacts commentary on John indicates likewise, as “there were many comings and goings to the tomb, including when Mary Magdalene came with other women, and another when she came alone” (Commentary on John, 20, p. 295). In keeping with the “duties of diligent visitation,” Mary Magdalene’s presence at the empty tomb in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 might be referring to different visitations.
Who was there? Where was the stone? How many angels were there? What did they say? How did the women react?
The key to understanding the narrative differences comes down to the interpretive flexibility provided by the “comings and goings” of multiple visits. If we look at the context provided by John 20, together with various commentaries, we can deduce that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb on a minimum of three occasions:
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